HC Deb 19 October 1966 vol 734 cc360-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitlock.]

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)

I was rather taken aback yesterday morning when I was informed that I had the Adjournment debate tonight. I put down this subject some three months ago and I must admit that I had rather forgotten doing so. However, I shall do my best in the time available to say why I consider this matter to be important.

The subject is concerned with the inadequate working conditions for Members of Parliament. I refer especially to backbench Members who wish to give efficient service to their constituents, because this is what we are elected to give. This is in no way a party matter. I do not attach any blame to the Ministry of Public Building and Works, or any other Government Department. I do not want luxurious conditions for myself or other hon. Members, although friends have put forward ideas, from stables to sauna baths and other things.

I want to be able to do my job, as all back benchers do, as efficiently as possible and to deal with correspondence, which takes a considerable amount of time, fairly quickly, and have time for research into major constituency and national problems. Every hon. Member, especially the back bencher, knows that conditions for work-here are so incredibly inefficient that they would not be believed outside the House. When an hon. Member tries to tell his constituents the sort of things one has to do here they do not believe him; they think that he is just telling them a story to try to impress. The conditions would not be tolerated by the smallest business, for it would be broke in a few months.

I recognise that one of the main troubles is the archaic interior of the Palace of Westminster, but I am convinced that a good architect could make far better use of the existing building. I readily acknowledge that quite a lot is being done at present. This is not before time, but it is being done. I tried to get to my filing cabinet during the Recess, but I had to go away because the whole place was dangerous to walk through, with all the floors up. Any other hon. Member who came back will realise that quite a lot is being done. What is happening, nobody knows, except the workmen and possibly the Ministry of Public Building and Works.

I reject absolutely one suggestion I heard which may have been put forward by the Liberal Party—the bombing or blowing up of the building. I do not know whether that is its solution.

Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)

That was Rhodesia.

Mr. Hawkins

I am sorry.

The other major trouble is the division of authority within the House. It is very difficult for an ordinary Member of Parliament to know where to go for different aspects of his work, for there are Mr. Speaker's Department, the Serjeant at Arms' Department, the Clerk's Department and many others. As with so many other Government and official departments, one naturally always goes to the wrong place first and is told that it is nothing to do with that department and that one had better go somewhere else. When one reaches that place one is told that it is nothing to do with them, or rather that part is not, but another part is. It is very difficult to find out who is responsible for what.

A few experiences of my own may illustrate what I mean. I entered the House, like several others, in 1964 and received a folder from the Serjeant at Arms, a booklet from the Refreshment Department, a booklet from the Library and a few other papers. One of the older hon. Members on my side of the House took me and other new hon. Members round the House and pointed out all sorts of interesting historic features, but did not remember to tell us where the bars were or the more important parts of the House. We did not receive any plan of the building but I believe—and I am glad to hear it if it is the case—that the hon. Members elected this year did receive a plan. Why not have one booklet with all this information in it? Perhaps it would be too simple, but it could also tell one the principles of procedure, how to put down Questions and where to go. Why should one have to waste the first few months of one's time here—some who represent marginal constituencies may wonder whether they will be here longer than for a few months—trying to find the way around?

I was given a key to a locker and after some difficulty I found that locker. It was on the floor outside the dining room in direct line with where the waitresses come out with loaded trays to go into the dining room. I am not built in a way that makes it easy to kneel down, I found that when I bent down to the locker I would trip up a waitress with a loaded tray. After six months I returned the key. I later found that some hon. Members had filing cabinets. On asking for one I was told that there was not one available, but after four or five months I got a key to a filing cabinet and I thought that I was making great progress but my filing cabinet, with some others, was in the cloisters. Now I find that where my cabinet is there is to be another Government Whips' office.

I do not know whether a lot more Government Whips are to be appointed. Probably they will be needed during the coming part of this Session. I understand that that area is to be taken from backbenchers. It was a very convenient place close to where we hang hats and coats and adjoining a desk. Of course, I had to arrive there very early because the desk was not mine and if one got there between 9 o'clock and 9.30 one was swept up by the sweepers and they did not leave until getting on for 10 o'clock.

Despite this, I felt that I was fortunate after six months to have achieved a filing cabinet. Rejoicing, I went to tell my secretary. Then the blow fell for I found that no women are allowed in the cloisters, although the cleaners use it. So I had to learn a new job, filing, and I am extremely bad at it. This was not the end, because when I went down to dictate letters in the only place one could find, on the interview floor, I would get a letter from the file in the cabinet and then have to go up two flights in the lift, down the steps, along the corridor, down more flights of stairs, cross the cloakroom to the part of the cloisters to the filing cabinet. I then had to reverse the process to get the file back to my secretary.

This seemed to be rather wasting time. I found that it took me 10 minutes every time that I wanted a letter from the file. This may sound amusing, but it is an appalling waste of time and it is a waste of the electors' money. I reckon that it took me two hours a day to carry the files and to do the filing and at the end of the day, because my secretary could not be there, it meant that the secretary was never able to get to one's filing cabinet. I thought that this was doing something one was not paid to do and yet not allowing someone else who could do the job much better to do it. My suggestions to the Serjeant at Arms that the secretary should be allowed there perhaps for one hour twice a week received a rather dusty answer.

There are many other matters I could mention. The telephone system seems completely inadequate. One gets into a telephone box and somehow or other always finds a Welshman on one side and a Scotsman on the other and it is difficult to carry on a conversation in English in that situation. It must be difficult for them to have Englishmen on either side. The way in which messages are taken round to Ministers interrupting committee meetings, and the lack of accommodation in the Library, are matters which we all know about.

In passing, I wish to say how grateful I am to the staff in the House. They are doing first-class work under difficult conditions, particularly the police, who have put me on the right corridor on many occasions. It was not for a long time that I realised that I should be looking at the colour of the seats to direct me to the House of Commons, when I kept going to the House of Lords by mistake. The Library and Post Office staff work all hours and are extremely efficient and courteous. Our waiters and waitresses have to put up with a lot of inefficient conditions in the kitchens and elsewhere and they do a very good job, for which I am extremely grateful.

What am I asking for? First, full information for all new Members, contained in one booklet, with a plan of the building. I feel that this would be welcomed by all Members. I want better facilities for secretaries, particularly in the Westminster Hall area which I know best, because conditions there are not fit for secretaries to work in. I would like a system of indicators in many places throughout the House, which would indicate that someone has a message waiting for him. I do not want a public address system. I want the cleaning to be finished by 9 o'clock in the morning; it is a small thing but one cannot get down to an hour's work before Committee, attempting to answer letters, if one's desk is being cleaned.

I want more Library and research staff and, finally—it seems a lot to ask—I want each M.P. to have a desk, a filing cabinet, a telephone and two chairs, one for his secretary. These must be within the building because, although I have seen some very good offices on the other side of the street, the difficulty of the lift, getting across to this building when there is a Division and being apart from the workings of the House, make such accommodation very difficult to use.

The thinking behind these antiquated conditions appears to be that it is good for a new M.P. to learn the hard way and to go back to school. Perhaps the reason why nothing is done is because members of the Government—I am not blaming any hon. Member in any Government—are the people who bring about changes and they are all right and have forgotten what conditions were like when they were back bench Members.

The chief reason for the lack of reform is ourselves accepting this state of affairs and never daring to spend money because the electorate would never "wear it". If they were told clearly how we are wasting their money by wasting our time then they would accept it. We need to have a real look at the proper use of the space in the building, coupled with an urgent O & M study of what are the minimum facilities necessary for us to do our job properly. If we put up with these conditions we shall rightly be the laughing stock of the nation.

More seriously, we shall never go on attracting the best type of person to be a Member of Parliament. I do not believe that I have asked for a lot of things. Many Members would like a sauna bath, a swimming pool and certain other things which would be very attractive, but I have only asked for what I think are the bare essentials necessary to carry on one's work efficiently and to enable one to give enough time to the major problems of the day. If one spends all of one's time with correspondence and trying to find out how to do things, one cannot concentrate upon the matters which we have been sent here to do.

I would like to say how very grateful I am to have been given the opportunity of ventilating this matter. I am often infuriated and frustrated by the obstacles which appear to be put in the way of our doing our job properly. But, like most hon. Members, I am fascinated by the work and am only asking for improvements so that we can do our job in the right way.

10.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works (Mr. James Boyden)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Norfolk, Southwest (Mr. Hawkins) for giving me an opportunity to explain some of the things that are going on, although I must start with the central difficulty that many people want to be more central than everyone else, that many people are in this place and want to use it, and that this is an absolutely fundamental problem in a Victorian building which was designed for much more leisurely days and procedures.

Much has been, is being and will be done. If one considers the situation before 1960, there were 78 rooms available for Parliamentary use, 60 for Ministers, five for back benchers—60 hon. Members shared those five rooms—five for secretaries and eight for chairmen such as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and of the Estimates Committee.

Since 1960, there has been a steady incorporation and building of more rooms. In 1960 7, Old Palace Yard was brought in, with 10 rooms and 1, Bridge Street was brought in in 1961, giving 53 rooms. There were other minor additions as well. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), who was a great protagonist for hon. Members' rights and accommodation, brought into use 54, Parliament Street in 1965, which provided 11 rooms, and the roof space scheme, which is now practically completed, brought in 70 rooms.

We are nearing the point when Star Chamber Court will be available. The building work should be finished just after Christmas, while furnishing, and so on, will take about another month, which means that by February of next year we will have another 67 rooms available. This means that since 1960 we have added 228 rooms, primarily for Parliamentary use—the sort of use to which the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West referred—compared with an initial figure of 78 prior to 1960.

A considerable part of this accommodation has been given to private hon. Members. The total available to private hon. Members, if one takes the whole picture and looks forward to February, 1967, is that 79 single rooms have been or will be available while, with other, shared rooms, about 215 back-bench hon. Members will have facilities with desks, many of them in single rooms. In addition, there will be 16 rooms available for secretaries, making accommodation for about 124 secretaries. Before 1960, there were five rooms available for secretaries.

In addition, the number of rooms available for chairmen will have gone up from eight to 25 and the number of rooms for Ministers—there are rather more Ministers now—will have gone up to 104. There are other rooms to which I have not referred, but which make the conditions of the House much better for hon. Members and help to alleviate some of the poor conditions which existed before.

It is recognised that what has and is being done is not enough and, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows, there is a big scheme under way for a new Parliament building. I assure him that what he asks for by way of improved organisation and method—a clear definition of what is required by Parliament and hon. Members—is fully in the mind of the Ministry of Public Building and Works and of the Services and Accommodation Committee, which look after these matters, and of the special committee which will look after the new building. Negotiations are now starting to try to work out the best facilities for hon. Members, but this is looking a long way ahead. New buildings take a long time to complete, and planning, which is a difficult matter, also takes a considerable time.

So I think I can say that in the five or six years since things began to move—I am glad that the hon. Gentleman did not make party politics out of this, for both parties have done their bit in this —the organisation of the building, the organisation of the architecture has got very considerably under way and is making very great strides forward.

Perhaps I should say one thing about a matter which irritates hon. Members from time to time and is partly a personal thing, and that is complaints about the heat of rooms or the cold of rooms, things like that. The hon. Gentleman intended to raise the question of lavatories with me, but I noticed that he did not. But there are complaints about the central heating not working properly, and that sort of thing. If any hon. Member—this went out on record about a year ago—has any such complaint, and will ring up extension 800, I can promise him that the Ministry's engineers will give instant attention to the matter. Normally, it is a matter of a very small adjustment and it can be put right.

I think that perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like me to explain what is to happen with the new building which is coming. He asked a number of questions which obliquely referred to this. I would like very much to say again how much the House owes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West for initiating the new building project in Star Chamber Court. Work started on this in the Summer Recess of 1965, and the estimated cost is about £250,000. As I have suggested, the work is practically completed and we should be able to make the arrangements for it quite soon.

There has, of course, been a change in the method of allocating rooms, and this is now done at the behest of the House of Commons Services Committee, which has done the allocations to which I will refer in a moment, and any further proposals for altering the accommodation and making facilities better will now come from this Committee and the Ministry of Public Building and Works will, of course, carry out as the House directs.

I think that I should say here that the staff the Ministry employs on this building are very experienced people who are very good at the particular jobs they have to do. I do not think that there was any implication of criticism of them, but I certainly would like to say, from my experience of them, how well they do attend to the physical needs of this building, which is very difficult indeed.

To go on with the new Star Chamber Court, the building has got four storeys which are to be allocated in this way. The Members' cloakroom will be created there to release the existing cloakroom in the cloisters—which the hon. Gentleman suspected will probably lead to his being turned out.

I should explain about his difficulty with the filing cabinet that that is in the gentlemen's cloakroom. I think that he made a point about cleaners. Women are not allowed in there when the House is sitting. That is the reason why his secretary cannot have access to his own filing cabinet. The normal custom is for secretaries to have filing cabinets in the rooms in which they work. His filing cabinet is his personal one—many Members have them—not necessarily to be used by secretaries. If he had had a desk in another place—I gather he was offered a desk outside the actual central part of the House, and he did not find this convenient—he would be able to have his secretary have access to his filing cabinet. I understand his difficulty at present in Parliament Street or Bridge Street—across the way at the other building when Divisions are on, when the weather is wet; and when Divisions are on there is a constant trailing to and fro, which interrupts one's work, and which probably decides one not to go on with the work, but to go to the other place, to which he referred.

As well as the cloakroom there will be a car park. The principal floor level will accommodate the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Deputy Chairman, and there will be nine single rooms for Ministers, releasing nine rooms elsewhere for private Members. The principal mezzanine floor will have rooms for members of the "Shadow" Cabinet and their secretaries, which will release 16 rooms elsewhere. The first floor will have 16 single rooms for Ministers, which will release another 16 rooms elsewhere. There will be three units for the Press Gallery, and the first floor mezzanine level, which can only be half-used because of service installations and pillars, etc., will provide accommodation for journalists and have five double rooms for the use of private Members.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the accommodation for the Whips. Again, this is not an encroachment on private Members' rooms, because there will be an increased number of rooms available. Government Whips will have accommodation there, and the staircase is being constructed to make it quick and easy for them to attend to their onerous duties of keeping us in order.

To mention some of the other facilities which have been added to make it possible for people to perform their duties quickly, there has been an increase in parking space, with the provision of 50 parking spaces in the lower garage of Church House. That is an additional facility which is very convenient. There has been a very considerable extension to the Library facilities, brought about by the activities of the Library Committee.

In 1960, there were 18 Library clerks and other officials of that grade, and seven secretaries and attendants. In this year, there will be 32 Library clerks and 14 secretaries and attendants; in other words, the staff has almost doubled from 25 to 46. That is to cope with the new services—the small scientific section—the experimental news cutting service, and to improve existing services. This has given rise to considerable pressure on accommodation, because the additional Library staff have to be accommodated somewhere.

I should like to express appreciation of the way in which the late Speaker, Sir Harry Hylton Foster, assisted in giving up part of his domestic quarters for Library staff, and of the way in which the present Speaker has given up his Library to make an extension to the Members' Library, which will be started on reasonably soon, at Christmas, and provide an additional part to the Library.

In the same way, other services have been improved. The copying machines are greatly used. There are two now, and I think that there were none when I first came to the House. A third is being installed.

The hon. Gentleman grumbled about the telephone system. One of the difficulties about it is its structure. But an intercom telephone network was introduced last year, which is taking more calls and making the existing services go a good deal further.

Perhaps I should refer to the position about desks, which is rather better than the hon. Gentleman gave us to understand. After the General Election, a ballot was held for desks, and those hon. Members who were unsuccessful were placed on a waiting list. All those have since been offered desks, although some have declined to take them because they were too far away from the centre. I see the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. I will have his particular case investigated. That is what I am informed. I understand that there is only one hon. Member who is now awaiting the offer of a desk, and he applied in July.

Matters of improving facilities which require additional work are now very much under the control of the House of Commons itself. As I said earlier, they arise from the recommendations of the House's own Committee, and the execution of them is with the Ministry of Public Building and Works.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.